By Larry Sandler
Rebuilding southeastern Wisconsin freeways is driving much of a proposal to boost gas taxes and vehicle fees by $751 million over two years, but public transit and hybrid vehicles seemed to be more on the minds of Milwaukee-area business leaders.
Speaking at an MMAC luncheon today, state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb outlined the impact of freeway reconstruction on his department’s proposed 2015-17 budget. Continuing work to rebuild the north-south leg of I-94, the Zoo Interchange and the Hoan Bridge would cost $634 million over the biennium, he said.
In order to honor the agency’s commitments to drivers and other interested parties, “we need to keep that on track,” Gottlieb said. But he added: “We just do not have the revenue to do that at the same time we take care of the needs of the other 65 counties” outside the Milwaukee region.
Although much of the debate about the DOT budget request has focused on DOT’s plan to boost gas and diesel taxes and impose a new fee on vehicle purchases, the question- and-answer period focused largely on transit funding and on a proposed new $50-a-year fee for hybrid and electric vehicle owners.
Jeff Kohlrapp, hiring and recruiting manager for Quad/Graphics Inc., said the printing company was struggling to fill 400 vacancies and wanted to know how the state would help workers reach those largely suburban jobs. Gottlieb said his budget request would provide $16 million a year to fund new transit service targeted at creating and retaining jobs, in addition to $13 million required by the settlement of a lawsuit over Zoo Interchange expansion.
Kerry Thomas, executive director of the Metro Go transit advocacy coalition, praised Gottlieb for “a very courageous budget” on transit, then questioned whether transit commitments could be sustained if the guv and lawmakers agree with Gottlieb’s proposal to finance transit out of the state’s general account instead of the transportation fund. Gottlieb said that was a valid concern, but noted transit appropriations were never guaranteed from the transportation fund, either.
Another audience member asked if it was fair to treat hybrid and electric vehicles the same, because hybrids use some gas and pay some gas taxes. Gottlieb said DOT officials had debated that issue but thought it was a matter of principle that all vehicle owners should contribute to highway funding.
In a brief interview after his speech, Gottlieb added, “We knew (the hybrid-electric fee) would be controversial, but we thought it had to be discussed.” He pointed to Virginia, where lawmakers instituted a similar fee but then yielded to public pressure to repeal it for hybrid vehicles, leaving the $64 annual fee in place only for fully electric vehicles.
Walker has said the DOT proposal would be significantly changed before he introduces his budget plan early next year, but he hasn’t said how he would change it. Gottlieb said Walker hasn’t given him any indication what will happen to his budget.